Fast Fashion: can it work without harming our planet?

16th April 2019 10:38

Written by Rebecca Harris, Associate Director. Contact Rebecca here

As a nation, many of us love shopping for fashion and we’re guilty of buying way more clothes and shoes than we need. Our wardrobes are saturated. We are a generation of ‘not wanting to be seen in the same outfit twice’, which has been exacerbated by social media. Time and time again we’re lured in by the experience and the buzz of buying fashion – both online and on the high street.


It was only recently that many of us started to become aware of the detrimental impact that the fashion industry is having on our planet...

Increased press coverage and TV programmes such as Stacey Dooley’s documentary titled Stacey Dooley investigates Fashion’s Dirty Secret have started to help stir an environmental consciousness in many consumers who are becoming better informed about their own carbon footprint when it comes to fashion.

In the UK, we buy more clothes per person than any other European country - which ultimately means more items to discard -  over a million tonnes every year according to Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Mary Creagh MP. When you then consider that 80% of this (£140 million's worth!) is destined for landfill, the problem with our throwaway culture is all too clear. 

The fast fashion industry has created an increased demand for cheap clothing made from man-made fibres. Polyester, the synthetic fibre which Greenpeace says is 'the main driver of the fast fashion industry' has seen a 157% increase since the year 2000,  now making up 60% of the world's textiles.  This is bad news for the environment as not only can polyester take hundreds of years to degrade, it also sheds fibres through the production process and through our domestic wash cycles, with many ending up in our waterways. A fleece jacket for example can shed millions of fibres in just a single wash. Research funded by the European Union showed that 30,000 tonnes of synthetic fibres are discarded in waste water from domestic washing machines every year. While some of these fibres may be filtered at wastewater treatment plants, many are not and are contributing to ocean plastic pollution. 

The production of fast fashion

Toxic chemicals and dyes used in the production of clothing are also a major concern, not only causing pollution to global waterways, and endangering plants and animal life, but increasing the likelihood of health problems for the people who make them. After agriculture, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water in the world.

Fast fashion also calls into question the issue of unfair labour practices in some of the countries where garments are produced, where work can be unregulated, and often involve child labour.

In response to the rise of fast fashion, the Environmental Audit Committee last year launched an enquiry to investigate the social and environmental impact of the industry. Its final report published in February made a number of recommendations including environmental targets for retailers, rewards for companies who produce more ethically considered clothing and penalties for those who don't. It also called on the government to balance tax saving incentives in favour of fashion companies committed to reducing the environmental impact of the fashion industry. 

DJS Research Retail Survey 2019 - fighting back against fast fashion? 

A recent survey of 1,000 nationally representative consumers by DJS Research revealed that younger generations are not only becoming more aware of the impact that the fashion industry is having on the environment but they are actually starting to take action.

Younger people are more likely to agree with the statement ‘I have consciously reduced how frequently I buy clothing items due to the impact of the fashion trade on the environment’ than older people (46% of Gen Z and 26% of the Silent Generation).

Furthermore, younger people are more likely to claim that they are going to ‘spend more’ on clothing, footwear & accessories in 2019 compared to last year than older people (44% of Gen Z and 5% of the Silent Generation). 

This suggests a movement towards buying more investment, classic pieces and less cheap, disposable items… but will we really be wearing items again and again? Will fast fashion slow down? It’s hard to imagine that often cash-strapped Gen Z will be choosing quality over quantity (and being on-trend) when it comes to fashion.

So how can retailers satisfy our desire for cheap, disposable fashion whilst helping us to ease our conscience in terms of the impact that this industry is having on the environment?

There is definitely a gap in the market for sustainable, well priced fashion… but again, buying more eco-friendly clothing doesn’t mean that we’ll actually wear it more than once, so only partly solves this issue.

Some fashion retailers are offering a re-cycle service to prevent our discarded fashion from going to landfill – and offering a discount in return, such as:

  • Boohoo - reGAIN.
  • H&M - Garment Collecting programme
  • Marks and Spencer – Shwopping

Despite these schemes and not forgetting the well established network of charity shops across the UK, three-quarters of Britons throw away unwanted clothing, rather than donating or recycling it.

Again, such schemes only tackle part of the problem and the industry needs to focus efforts on reducing supply.  But of course, this hinges on reducing demand.

Sharing is caring

Perhaps the answer lies in sharing our clothes. In a micro sense, this wouldn’t work – if it’s important not to be seen in the same outfit twice then it’s even more important not to be seen in a friend’s outfit! But in a macro sense, there are two ways that this concept could work: Hiring clothing and selling/buying second hand clothing.

Both of these business models will enable shoppers to access fashion whilst reducing the amount of clothes that are sat in wardrobes gathering dust. Ultimately, by sharing our clothes we’d be reducing the demand for the production of new clothes.

It will be interesting to see whether the established fashion retailers will adapt their business models to enable re-sale of their items and/or hire or whether this will be the territory of forward thinking new-comers. Could this type of business model ever be as lucrative as selling new?

To change the fashion industry on this scale - how we consume and how we produce fashion – will take time, but the wakeup call is getting louder and louder.

To find out more, or to conduct your own research within the retail sector get in touch with one of our retail specialists: Gill RedfernRebecca Harris or Sharon Nichols.

Get more DJS News: 

Will environmental consciousness change the direction of travel for delivery services in the UK?
Evolutionary Dear Consumer: The Future Face of Customer Loyalty
Mixed consumer confidence for the year ahead as Brexit looms

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